Whilst you would think that a 10 day silent meditation would leave one refreshed, energised – ready to take on the world and of course, calmer than ever before, my first 10 day Vipassana: silent meditation retreat left me feeling everything but the things aforementioned. Truth be told, it was the opposite. I was irritated, fatigued, had low/no sex drive and rolling headaches for months after the retreat. However, it was one of the most healing and growing experiences of my life. Wondering what makes me say that despite the aftereffects of the retreat? Well… read on to find out how this gruelling yet empowering experience transformed my life for the better!
January 2019: I had just started a new job leading (many more) multi-million dollar, turnkey B2B pricing projects – an incredible place to be financially and professionally. However, I was beset with chronic pain that medical science had no answers or cure for. I had been regularly practising Ashtanga yoga for 3 years by then, which didn’t alleviate the pain but I think it kept it from becoming worse.
April 2019: I applied last minute & got waitlisted for the 10 day Vipassana retreat in April, years after my first Ashtanga teacher, Gowrisha of Samyama Academy of Yoga in Bangalore, India, who himself was an ardent Vipassana practitioner, suggested that I give this meditation retreat a try.
The fact that a very ‘successful’ me was a colossal f*#k-up on the relationships front with my mother, sister who live in India and also a year long breakup with my ex, might or might not have made the Universe push my application. I don’t know what worked in my favor, but I do know that I’m blessed for it to happen when it did. I was doing this.
Less than 3 months into my job, I charmed my then boss into giving me 10 days off (Brooks Hamilton, love you man)! And like the responsible corporate citizen I am, in the weeks leading to the retreat, I made sure that my team had all that they required to deliver. My clients were taken care of, so much so that even on my way driving into the centre outside Dallas, TX from my home of Austin I was on phone meetings to tie up the loose ends, if any.
The centre is called Dhamma Siri – Southwest Vipassana Centre, is about an hour from downtown Dallas located in quiet pastoral lands. I checked in at the reception, turned off my phone and deposited it, and was told that I can pick it up after 10 days (if you think this is the most shocking part, best is yet to come!).
Day 0, Wednesday – Some snacks in the earlier part of the evening and a quick orientation led me and the others into the first meditation. There is really no ‘Live’ instruction at Vipassana centres. All meditations were taped instructions from the founder of the Vipassana organisation – Shri SN Goenka. There was an assistant teacher each – for men and women who help with the questions about the practice and clarify any doubts that may arise.
On my day of arrival in the evening, the first meditation given to me was Anapanasati or Anapana – which is observing the breath as-is. This technique prepares you for the Vipassana meditation. In the first meditation I was told that the foundation of practice is Sila, Samadhi & Panya – pali words (the language during Buddha’s time) for moral conduct, concentration of the mind and the wisdom of insight, respectively. After this, I was given the 5 precepts; 8 if you are an old student.
Most importantly, I was administered the oath of noble silence i.e. no talking, no reading/writing or listening to music and no watches either. The silence is called ‘noble silence’ because we were not supposed to communicate with other students through signs or eye contact or gestures of any kind – For 10 whole days!
The communication is restricted to a community manager, if I needed anything in the room and during the interview time with the teacher to clarify doubts about the practice.
Day 1 – 3, Thur-Sat, Anapanasati
The first 3 days of the course we practised the breath meditation of anapana and an advanced version was introduced on the second day, where along with focussing on the natural breath, we were taught to observe any sensations on the small triangular area above the upper lip below the nostrils.
I had no prior experience in meditating for even 5 minutes a day and the first 3 days were extremely challenging. To say the least, I felt like a boiling ocean and I couldn’t even tell anyone or journal how I’m feeling. It was just me and my thoughts. Oh and believe me, there will be plenty of thoughts that come in when you are meditating. They say, the most experienced of meditators find a few seconds of calm in an hour long meditation, we plebeians are fortunate if we find a few milliseconds of stillness.
For most people it is the 3rd and the 7th day that are very difficult and those who drop, do so on the 3rd/4th day. I will admit that I did feel like quitting, driving to a bar in Dallas Downtown and drowning in beer & BBQ, glamping for the rest of the time. Of course (& thankfully), better sense prevailed.
The best part or at least my favourite part of the whole course were the discourses: 1 a day for 10 days each and these are all videotaped replays of discourses given by the founder Goenkaji (the suffix ‘ji’ in Indian languages is used as mark of respect) in English, and you can request a translation in many other languages.
I saw a wizened, white haired Goenkaji in these, yet he was smiling like a schoolboy with a twinkle in his eyes that defies his age and camouflages his wisdom. He is so funny, astute and articulate. Every discourse was related to the practice of the day and was interspersed with stories of Buddha and Goenkaji’s life- as a successful businessman turned world meditation teacher. I felt in every lecture that he was talking to me directly and clearing any doubts I had for the day and was preparing me for practice for the next day.
The similarities between Prince Gotama and Goenkaji didn’t escape me as both men were born into incredibly wealthy households and while Goenkaji didn’t technically renounce his personal life, I don’t see him any less significant than Buddha in having dedicated his life to eradicating misery.
Herein, also lies the core of the practice – to eliminate any and all suffering and to seek the truth – be the truth. Vipassana meditation was discovered by Buddha, but it is taught in a non-denominational , non-religious fashion. Buddha didn’t preach about any organised religion or rituals and neither did he call himself a messiah. He merely said, “This is the practice I discovered that liberated me from the misery of bondage. This is how it is done. Try it and keep practising.” True to his words there are no religious representations or symbols anywhere in the Vipassana centres. The only thing seen if at all much is the ‘Wheel of Dhamma.’
His lectures have had a significant impact on my life and my experience from Vipassana was the first building block which created calmcorporate; my calling to help others in their own self-actualization journey.
To read about the rest of the 10 days and my takeaways from a milestone experience of my life, go to Part 2
9th May, 2022